Beyond the Liberal Kingdom
A review of Kevin Vallier's "All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism."
In his new book, All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism, Kevin Vallier, a professor at Bowling Green State University, seeks to offer an evaluation of integralism, a term he uses, from a liberal perspective. The title invokes the words of Satan to Our Lord when he offered Him all the kingdoms of the world in the desert. Liberals read this and think that Christ’s rejection of the offer means that He is not interested in earthly politics. Integralists read this and think that this means Satan rules all the kingdoms of the world, and so the Church’s job is to reconquer them for Christ.
The book is primarily focused on Catholic integralism, but Vallier also touches on Confucian and Islamic integralism in one chapter. Vallier primarily focuses on the integralist theories of Adrian Vermeule and Thomas Pink but references other integralist thinkers as well, including many in the tradition such as Francisco Suarez. While I disagree with Vallier’s conclusions, I believe he is very fair and balanced in his approach and offers much for everyone to think about in this book.
Vallier begins with some background on the nature of Catholic integralism. He notes that integralism only necessarily entails that the state subordinate itself to the Church and uses its power to promote supernatural goods. An integralist state could be big or small, democratic or monarchical. It was a very refreshing change to see a liberal getting to the core of integralist belief rather than creating a strawman. This is a common trend throughout the book.
Vallier often seeks to “steelman” his opposition. (He told me in a discussion we had that he even received significant pushback from fellow liberals for not making unnecessary accusations of authoritarianism about integralism.) In this chapter, Vallier also provides some very helpful background on the history of modern integralism. Unfortunately, certain individuals he interviewed for the book wished to remain anonymous, and so I cannot verify if his account is accurate or not. Some of those involved may find his treatment unfair, but I’ll have to leave that to those who were involved.
Vallier details two primary lines of reasoning why someone might be an integralist. The first is narratival. God initially established a perfect society in the garden, but through sin man was corrupted. Christ comes to retake the nations for Himself, and so integralism is inherently tied to the mission of the Church. Unfortunately, since Vallier is a philosopher and not a theologian, he decides not to tackle this argument.
This is unfortunate because I believe it is the best argument for integralism. Vallier instead decides to focus more on the border between philosophy and theology. Civil society is ordered towards the promotion of natural good. However, man also has a supernatural end, and so the state should also work towards the promotion of the supernatural good. In addition, since sin has weakened man, grace is necessary even for the promotion of natural virtue. Thus, integralism would seem to be the best fit given an Aristotelian account of politics and the truth of Christianity.
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While one would expect Vallier to launch into a tirade against integralism immediately, he actually spends the next two chapters developing arguments for integralism. The first argument is historical. He reviews the history of Christian political thought and shows how it is overwhelmingly integralist, including Catholic authors into the twentieth century. Again, this honest account of history is extremely refreshing from a liberal. Vallier, while still respecting St. Thomas Aquinas, eviscerates Whig Thomists who seek to enlist Aquinas for liberalism.
One area where Vallier is less certain is Dignitatis humanae. While he is also respectful of Thomas Pink’s integralist reading of DH, he believes that DH does present very serious problems for integralists. Nonetheless, he seems to mostly leave the debate open. Vallier himself is Eastern Orthodox and not Catholic, so it seems he felt this debate is not his to determine who is right.
Another argument Vallier provides is the symmetry argument. If states promote natural goods, they ought to also promote supernatural goods. Interestingly, Vallier does not defend liberalism as the alternative to this view. I believe he felt that there was too big of a rift between liberalism and integralism on this. Instead, he invokes New Natural Law theory. NNL argues that the state should still be active in promoting virtue, but that it should only deal with natural goods.
Vallier believes, however, that the objections of the NNL are not strong enough to overcome the integralist position. It seems then that Vallier believes a Christian has two options, liberalism or integralism, and that a middle ground will not work. Even though I agree with Vallier’s conclusions here, I found his arguments somewhat weak. The conditional premise is not defended well enough. I also would have liked to have seen Vallier defend the liberal position here, even if he also still discussed NNL.
Although Vallier admits these two arguments for integralism are good, he still believes that if there are too many problems with integralism, liberalism should be embraced regardless. This to me seems like a cop-out though. If the first two arguments are true, then integralism necessarily follows. The remaining chapters are difficulties that integralists should consider, but difficulties cannot overcome certain arguments. To give an analogy, consider the problem of evil: How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow the existence of evil?
The question presents difficult challenges to solve, but since we have metaphysically certain proofs for the existence of God, these serve only as difficult mysteries, namely understanding divine providence, but they are not concepts that disprove the existence of God. This is one of many examples where Vallier’s analytic philosophy and epistemology clash with the Aristotelian epistemology that most integralists hold. He seeks probable arguments, whereas most integralists seek certain arguments.
Vallier’s first problem is the transition argument. It is impossible for a liberal society to transition to an integralist one. Vallier examines in detail the only complete transition model proposed, that of Adrian Vermeule. I am not a political strategist, so I will leave it to others to determine if Vallier’s arguments refute the position of Vermeule, but even if they did, so what?
This would just mean integralists have to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan. As Vallier himself notes, many integralists disagree with Vermeule’s strategy. This is really an in-house integralist debate. Overall, I found this objection very weak. However, I did appreciate his very comprehensive engagement with Vermeule’s articles on integration from within. I will leave it to Vermeule himself to analyze whether Vallier’s synthesis of his thought is an accurate representation.
Vallier’s second problem is the stability approach. This was my favorite chapter in the book for its creativity. Vallier invokes economic modeling to try and model the stability of various regimes. He suggests that since integralists make qualitative claims about the superiority of stability under integralism, these should be able to be modeled quantitatively with modern models.
That is not to say that the models will be exact, but that they can provide a general estimate. Vallier follows integralist sources that grace and coercion will increase stability, while sin and pluralism will degrade it. Even if integralism is correct about its analysis of society, will it actually work? Vallier tries to calculate the “grace rate” that would be necessary under various conditions, and then tries to argue that these grace rates are too high to be any more successful than liberalism at stability.
While I initially recoiled at the idea, Aristotle points out in book one of the Nicomachean Ethics that we cannot seek mathematical proofs in politics. I did warm up to the idea, however, as Aristotle does use mathematical analogies to describe justice in book five. If the models are just understood as estimates, then they can still be a useful tool. Perhaps just like the medieval universities integrated the new learning of their day into theological method, we must do the same.
Nonetheless, it seems that Vallier’s model makes too many assumptions. Can we really quantify a “grace rate?” Why does grace increase according to the square root, while pluralism is parabolic? I understand these are just meant to be general models, but they have to make so many assumptions that I do not believe they can actually provide any useful information at this time. You can always change the data around slightly to get the result you want with these models. Vallier does leave open an interesting challenge though: Can integralists create alternative models in defense of integralism? Hopefully a statistics savvy integralist can take a shot at it.
Vallier’s final argument against integralism is the justice argument. Vallier’s argument here could have just been “integralists are big meanies,” but he knows that that is not a real argument. His argument about justice is very subtle: integralism is unjust not against religious minorities, but actually against cradle Catholics. Since religious minorities are allowed religious freedom under integralism, they are not necessarily harmed by integralism. A baptized infant never agreed to become Catholic, and so it is unjust for them to be forced to remain Catholic as an adult.
An objector at this point might respond that this is too much of a consent-based morality which an integralist would not accept in the first place. However, Vallier points out that Catholic teaching requires that baptism be a free choice. Even in the case of an infant, it is the free choice of the godparents which stands in for the infant since the infant is too young to make a choice. Vallier argues that the godparents cannot justly force someone else though to consent to their choice in perpetuity, only while they are before the age of reason.
While I believe Vallier’s justice argument gets to the real core of the issue, unlike most liberal attempts to understand integralism, the argument ultimately still begs the question. The integralist simply will not agree that this is unjust. I believe we would have to get to more fundamental questions about the nature of justice and of the relation of parents and children to really prove it one way or the other.
In fact, to some degree, most liberals would accept the integralist logic here when it comes to the family and citizenship. We did not choose which family we were born into or which country we were born into, but in both cases we recognize that it comes with certain duties (and certain rights of authorities to punish) which cannot get rid of simply because we do not like where we were born. One can choose to give up their citizenship and move to another country, but one could also choose to leave an integralist state and move elsewhere. Wherever they move though, there will be a state which imposes certain duties. It is just a fact of life.
I asked Vallier his own opinion on these analogies, and he agrees with the family example, but not the citizenship example, which he believes does require some sort of consent of the governed, (and here he even appeals to Suarez who is elsewhere his example of integralism). Vallier believes that the Church example corresponds more with citizenship than familial membership. However, the integralist would simply respond that the state is a natural entity and not something formed by a liberal social contract theory.
While Suarez is closer to social contract theory than Aristotle, Suarez still differs significantly in that he considers the state to be natural and believes that consent is what forms a new polity, but that once formed the people cannot revolt except in extreme circumstances. Vallier did tell me he hopes to do more work on political authority, so I look forward to seeing that. I believe this is one area where he will find significant tensions with his justice argument.
In his last chapter, Vallier discusses Confucian and Islamic integralism. The discussion of Confucian integralism was especially interesting. I believe Catholic integralists could learn a lot about making a modern integralist constitution from neo-Confucianism based on Vallier’s description. That said, I would have liked to see Vallier engage his own religious tradition’s politics. The Eastern Orthodox Church has a long history of Church-state relations, and in many ways seems even further from liberalism than Catholicism. While Vallier is certainly aware of this and says his reason for not doing so is a lack of familiarity with the relevant sources, it does feel a little like throwing stones from glass houses.
In the epilogue, Vallier offers a possible middle ground between integralism and liberalism. Liberalism could allow a neutral macro-state under which integralist micro-states could flourish. Vallier offers as an example the Eastern Orthodox autonomous region of Mount Athos. Mount Athos is a peninsula full of monasteries. While formally under the Greek government, they run their own affairs and even issue their own visas.
However, Vallier misses a crucial detail: Greece is a confessionally Eastern Orthodox state. While Greeks in Greece are not very religious, the government still pays the salaries of priests and promotes the Church through government action. They have even sent military forces onto Athos to remove monks who schismed from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Athos is also entirely populated by monks. Athos is not an example of liberalism allowing integralism, but a confessional state supporting and promoting religious life.
When I brought this objection up to Vallier, he responded that Athos still flourished under Islamic rule. However, the Ottomans were not liberal either. They had minority communities governed by religious leaders, who in turn were subject to the Sultan. Thus, Athos still had relative autonomy during the Ottoman period. While I do not wish to lessen the brutal treatment the Greeks faced under Islamic rule for 500 years, including genocide, and which still continues in some areas today, it still is not an example of liberalism allowing for the flourishing of private religious communities.
There are areas in the United States where Catholics are moving en masse, such as Steubenville, Ohio, St. Mary’s, Kansas, and Ave Maria, Florida. These towns are still subject to American law. Imagine if Steubenville tried to declare itself a confessionally Catholic town. This is not ideal. It would be struck down by the Supreme Court and the president would send in the military to enforce the ruling if they resisted.
I will end by encouraging anyone well formed in the Catholic political tradition to pick up the book. It is certainly not for beginners, but to those who understand the principles of political philosophy, it is worthy of engagement. (To those not well formed, read Aristotle. He is the master of us all.) Also, thank you to Kevin Vallier for giving me a shout out at the end of the book in the acknowledgements, and for discussing the book with me for hours longer than we had scheduled.
Ultimately, All the Kingdoms of the World is a very good and insightful book, despite my disagreements. Vallier has moved the conversation forward quite a bit by providing a liberal engagement with Catholic political thought, not an imagined version which accuses everyone else of being authoritarians. Unfortunately, I expect this book to be cited frequently by liberals who won’t actually read it, and so they’ll be unaware that the book has multiple chapters in defense of integralism. This is not in any way a critique of Vallier himself though, who is a model of proper engagement with intellectual opponents. In many ways, I consider this book a significant win, as the arguments it provides for integralism far outweigh the arguments it provides against integralism.
All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism, can be purchased here.
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